Wild Quiet (Illegal Art)
Wild Quiet, Junk Culture’s full-length debut on Illegal Art, consists of eight songs and one instrumental fragment that treat the themes of home, freedom, and growing up. Essentially a one-man band—the project of Oregon native and current Oxford, Mississippi resident Deepak Mantena—Junk Culture here explores traditional pop song forms in lieu of the heavily sampled dance music Mantena created on two previous EPs. While the album’s slickly produced pop music evokes the various senses of freedom Mantena explores in his lyrics, the pop song form ultimately constrains him, and the album offers limited payoff to make up for what Mantena loses in the bargain.
The album begins with a distorted burst of guitar before “Oregon,” one of the catchiest uptempo numbers, kicks in. “She said she thinks it’s time to move to Oregon / I know, I know, I know, I know I’m not free,” Mantena sings over big drums, warm electric guitar, and an array of keyboards, synthesizers, and sampled noises. The driving bass and electric guitars express the freedom Mantena yearns for as succinctly as any of the lyrics do, while the lyrics acknowledge the impossibility of that freedom. The song embodies the paradox of growing up, perhaps of settling into domestic life—it’s hard to say. Like most of the album, it comes on strong melodically, though it lacks the narrative specificity, the concrete details, or the inspired wordplay that distinguishes well-crafted pop music, whether or not of the indie variety.
Mantena’s other lyrics speak to similar themes, often evoking the Pacific Northwest as a kind of pastoral Eden: “I think I’m over it / Live in the woods without a net” he sings on “Dwell,” while on “Indian Summer” he creates a similar soundscape to the one he creates on “Oregon.” Yet songs that ought to be affecting, like “Ceremony,” addressed to a friend in the hospital (we think)—“Please always know that your family cares for you / Age will fade, but your body will come home”—simply aren’t, largely because Mantena’s ruminative lyrics never attach themselves to specific situations. Is the friend in “Ceremony” a war veteran? Is the couple in “Oregon” arguing about leaving the city for the country? We’ll never know—and yet those are the kinds of situational specifics that often as not keep you coming back to a record once the surface appeal of the sound fades.
For all the album’s thematic unity—for all the lush surfaces of the songs—in recasting himself as a singer-songwriter, Mantena plays against his strengths. While the freeform structure of previous efforts allowed for random samples to create fresh sonic textures, implying a worldliness the lyrics didn’t need to deliver, here the music sounds suffocated, as though Mantena finds himself constrained by the form. By hewing so tightly to verse-chorus-verse structure, Mantena denies himself the freedom that energizes his previous records. Even the lone instrumental, “Be Good,” which begins with a collage of sampled traffic noise, winds down into a sampled harpsichord chord progression, as though the progression from unfamiliar to familiar must always end in the banal.
Potentially, on a record concerned with freedom, growing up, and growing old (Mantena says finding gray hairs in his beard inspired the album), this creeping familiarity is a good thing. In practice, Wild Quiet fails to sustain the listener’s interest not because Mantena’s music isn’t artfully constructed but because Mantena’s adherence to form puts too much pressure on the words, and neither the music nor the words quite deliver. “Make up your mind / You’re in love with the thought of freedom,” he sings on album-closer “Washington,” which seems a perfect summation of the album’s themes; yet despite its densely layered (and often beautiful) textures, the record seems less than the sum of its parts. Whether or not this betrays a lack of vision—Mantena’s 26, so the record’s limitations might well reflect his ideas about aging—is hard to say, though there’s certainly enough to like here, and one hopes for better things to come.